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Trends in marketing: When to follow them, and when to let them pass

Todd Haskell | April 3, 2020

A little while back I came across the following question on a discussion board for small businesses:

What are some new marketing trends to expect so I don't get left behind in the dust?

When I first read it, this question made me cringe. This feels like a terrible way to approach marketing for your business. But when I did a little looking around, it became easier to see where this question came from. If you're curious, here are 10 digital marketing trends you need to know for 2020. If you like your trends in a family pack, you can also find 42 digital marketing trends you can't afford to ignore in 2020. If even 10 trends seem like a lot to take on, you could instead focus on 6 essential marketing trends for 2020.

The Hustle

Ironically, these articles demonstrate an advertising technique that is anything but new. The recipe is simple: First generate anxiety, then offer to alleviate it - for a price. If you're responsible for implementing a marketing strategy for a business, you don't want to let people use this technique on you, because it creates the conditions for poor decision-making. It does this in two ways.

First, anxiety, along with related emotions such as shame, guilt, and fear, are what psychologists call aversive emotional states. Or in everyday language, these emotions feel bad. Usually people don't like feeling bad - they want to get out of these states. In this way, aversive emotions motivate people to do something - they prime people for action.

When the necessary action is straightforward and obvious, that can be a good thing. If my kids have spent the whole day sitting on the couch playing video games rather than doing their chores, then generating a little guilt might be just the perfect approach. However, if you're in a more complex situation where the right path to go down isn't at all obvious, then being driven to action by an aversive emotion can be dangerous. That's because what we most want in those moments is just to make the unpleasant feeling go away, and as quickly as possible. In this way, such emotions shift our focus to what we want right now, rather than what would be best in the long term.

The second thing aversive emotions can do - or really any strong emotion - is to shift your thinking style. Many psychologists distinguish between two general modes of thinking, variously called System 1 and System 2, Type 1 and Type 2, or hot and cold cognition. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is slow, deliberate, and logical.

Using System 2 is time-consuming and takes a lot of effort, so our default mode of thinking is System 1. That system works pretty well for a lot of everyday choices, like do I want mint tea or lemon tea with my breakfast. However, it also happens to be consistently irrational and biased. So for complex, important decisions, like, say, buying a car, you want System 2 to be in charge. The problem is that emotions like fear and anxiety tend to shift people into System 1 mode. Thus, they interfere with careful and rational decision making.

From an advertising point of view, now you can understand why a strategy based on generating anxiety can seem very appealing: It encourages people to take fast, impulsive action focused on immediate gratification. Hopefully you can also see that when it comes to the marketing for your business, you definitely don't want that strategy being used on you.

Stop and Evaluate

As a starting place, I'd suggest paying attention to when a consultant or marketing agency is trying to use this sort of manipulative technique on you. Once you know what to look for, it's not hard to recognize. "You were thinking that you could just keep using your old tried-and-true approach to marketing? Well, let me tell you, the world is changing fast. What worked last year, last month, even last week, may not work tomorrow. Did you know your competitors are already taking advantage of the new opportunities that are emerging? And that they've seen huge increases in conversions as a result?"

When you hear something like this, walk the other way. If someone is willing to play mind games with you to get your business, it's clear that they don't truly respect you as a client, and they also probably don't have your best interests at heart. And if your goal is to be a customer-centric business, things are even worse, because they might try to steer you toward engaging in manipulative or coercive advertising yourself.

Second, remember that people have not changed in any fundamental way for thousands of years. For example, in the Bible (Numbers 11:4), the Israelites complain that all they have to eat is manna, compared to the more varied and interesting diet they had in Egypt. And in my house, my children complain that I always feed them the same thing, and ask for more variety. No matter how many marketing trends come and go, enduring human needs are not going to change. If you build your business strategy around these kinds of needs, then you will always be on a solid foundation. You should certainly be open to fine-tuning and minor adjustments, but resist the urge to make fundamental changes in response to the latest fad.

Third, develop an overall marketing plan, and evaluate any new trend or technique according to how well it fits with your plan. Usually when I say "marketing plan," people start getting very specific, jumping to discussion of things like lead generation and affilitate marketing. That's not what I mean. Our model for an overall marketing plan is based on four questions:

  • Who do you want to sell to?
  • What need do those people have that you want to address?
  • What product do you have that meets this need?
  • What is your story that ties these three things together?

Using Data to Make Decisions

So if you're wondering whether having Mr. Beast shill for you is a good idea, you can use these questions to help you make a System-2-based decision. As I write this, Mr. Beast has 33.5 million subscribers on YouTube. But who are those people, and how much overlap is there between them and your target market? The audience of social media sensations tends to skew young. For example, more than 70% of Instagram users are under 35. What's that, you say you're selling in-home care services for seniors and people with disabilities? For the time being, I think you could ignore all the hype about influencer marketing entirely.

That being said, there are some trends that are across-the-board, long-term changes. A good example would be smartphone use. In 2009, less that 1% of all webpage visits were from mobile phones. In 2018, it was over half. So when a website developer tells you that these days it's really important to make sure your site is mobile-friendly, you probably should listen.

As you can see, in these two examples I used data to help guide my thinking. That's what market research is all about. It's like a prescription for System 2 thinking. However, I will leave you a final word of caution: It's also to easy to get lured into a blind trust of numbers. Suppose you run a pizzaria. I could poll the people in my household and then report that 25% of survey respondents dislike pizza with tomato sauce. But it would be foolish to run off and change your menu based on that.

Even when you're dealing with data - perhaps especially when you're dealing with data - you should continue to ask lots of questions. Who were the people in the survey? What percentage of the people contacted actually completed the survey? What specific question were they responding to? Were they provided with any incentives?

If you don't have the bandwidth for that, or aren't sure what questions to ask, it may be worth hiring an outside consultant to help. But whoever you choose for that, make sure they make you feel empowered rather than inadequate, and that they encourage you to use System 2 rather than System 1 thinking.